In Women Who Tri, Alicia DiFabio explores the triathlon phenomenon that gripped her town and swept the nation. She explores the surge of women into endurance sports while telling her own personal story and profiling the inspiring women who have overcome challenges to find their inner athlete. The following is an excerpt from Women Who Tri.
“Racing for a cause allows our athletes to take triathlon from a self-centered sport and change it to a selfless endeavor.”
GALS FOR CAL
For the Massachusetts-based women of Gals for Cal, one important cause was the reason for coming together and tackling triathlon. This dedicated triathlon team was inspired by the love of a little boy and the hope for a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).
“As an infant he was slow, but he was a triplet,” says Cindy Quitzau about her son, Cal. When he was a preschooler, she noticed he’d trip and fall a lot. He also struggled to walk and climb on playground equipment. His prominent calves, like “little walnuts” in infancy, became even more enlarged as he grew, which, she would find out later, was a red flag. After a battery of tests, the diagnosis she feared was confirmed. Her 6-year-old boy had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rapidly progressive, genetic, muscle-wasting disease.
DMD is the most common fatal genetic disorder diagnosed in childhood. It’s one of nine types of muscular dystrophy, primarily affecting boys, and presently has no treatment or cure. Currently, there are 20,000 boys living with Duchenne in the United States. Life expectancy is around 20 years.
“My son had been diagnosed with Duchenne. I wanted to do something,” Cindy remembers. A few friends came to her with the idea of doing a triathlon. Neither Cindy nor her friends were triathletes, so she was taken aback. “I laughed,” she says. At that point, her only image of a triathlon was the Ironman. “I said, ‘You guys are crazy! I can’t do that!’ None of us could even run a mile!” But when she learned there were shorter distances, the wheels in her head began turning. Maybe it would be a way to channel her energy into something positive. She could use the triathlon to raise awareness and money for DMD, a disease that was sorely underfunded.
In 2009, the Quitzau family created a triathlon team affectionately named Gals for Cal. Twenty friends joined Cindy; they all signed up for the Danskin Women’s Triathlon, trained hard, and fundraised their hearts out. Most of them wouldn’t have called themselves athletes. A large majority didn’t even know how to swim or bike. Cindy had to teach herself how to swim at the age of 48. She was so terrified of the open water that she recruited a friend to swim that leg of the race for her.
They all made it to the finish line of the triathlon and raised a whopping $25,000 for the Jett Foundation. It was beyond Cindy’s wildest dreams. “We blew ourselves away,” she says. “The bond, the encouragement, and the support—it was so much fun.”
The next year, their team doubled in size. Cindy conquered her open-water fears and did the full triathlon. By 2011, there were 85 women of all fitness levels from the New England area racing for Gals for Cal. “We sort of mushroomed. One year we had 100 girls doing the race. We seem to attract newbies, and we love newbies,” says Cindy. The growing ranks reflect how deeply Cal, Cindy, and the Quitzau family inspire the people around them to make a difference. “People like to be involved in things that make them feel good.”
In 2016, the Gals for Cal raced together for a ninth season, and it was their biggest one to date, raising more than $76,000. Overall, the Gals for Cal have raised more than half a million dollars for individuals living with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and their caregivers.
Cindy continues to expand her reach into the Duchenne community by helping to improve the quality of life for families touched by DMD. In 2017, the Gals for Cal are locking arms with the Jett Foundation, and together they will help fund families needing costly equipment that insurance may not cover. “This area is a huge unmet need in our community,” Cindy says.
The younger generation has also gotten involved. In 2015, about 20 kids did their first triathlon to support the Gals for Cal. From there, the Kids for Cal team was born and has participated in several New England youth triathlons. Fathers didn’t want to feel left out, so Team D.A.D.S. (Dudes Against Duchenne) was formed. It seems many people crave being part of something bigger than themselves.
Triathlon gave Cindy an outlet and a purpose during a difficult transition into the world of Duchenne. The triathlon, for her, was more than a race. It became a symbol of overcoming struggle, of pulling together as a community, and of making a difference in the lives of other families going through the same thing. It became a kind of support group.
“I was the only mom [of a child with Duchenne] on the team the first year,” Cindy says. Now, she estimates there are about ten mothers of boys with DMD in Gals for Cal. “It’s become a support to the moms and the families. Taking care of yourself as a special mom is important. The challenges are enormous. We can help ourselves while helping someone else.”
Cal lost his ability to walk at the age of 12, and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. But soon he will lose his upper-body strength, too. Cardiac and respiratory problems associated with DMD typically begin in adolescence. Yet nothing stops a now 15-year-old Cal from coming out to cheer the Gals on at their race. “The whole Gals for Cal [team] has helped him emotionally,” Cindy says.
Survival into adulthood is becoming more common with advanced medical technology, so Cindy stays hopeful, though realistic. “It will take his life. We just don’t know when.” Until then, the Gals will be swimming, biking, and running to help fund a cure for this disease with Cal cheering them on.
“I wish every Duchenne mother was surrounded with this kind of support,” Cindy says. “I honestly don’t know how I would be coping with the monster that is Duchenne without this tribe of women.”
PLEASE DONATE to help Gals for Cal and the Jett Foundation help families affected by Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Gals for Cal will be participating in the all-women Max Performance Title 9 Triathlon on Sept. 10, 2017 in Hopkinton, MA. If you’re local, consider joining the group!
In Women Who Tri, Alicia DiFabio explores the triathlon phenomenon that gripped her town and swept the nation. She explores the surge of women into endurance sports while telling her own personal story and profiling the inspiring women who have overcome challenges to find their inner athlete.